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7 Art Direction Skills That Industry Insiders Love

How to Make a Future in Art Direction

Think you could be an Art Director?

It’s competitive…and it’s worth it. The life of an Art Director is everything incredible, challenging, wild, and fulfilling about the creative process itself. Great Art Directors elevate every project they work on, producing pieces of culture that are experienced, shared, and loved around the world.

Naturally, such an important position can be incredibly competitive. The allure of a life as the creative mastermind behind those massive ad campaigns and game-changing creative projects can be powerful.

So how can an aspiring Art Director stand out from the increasingly large crowd?

The key is to focus your efforts on developing the skills that real-world employers actually care about. C

utting-edge outfits like Apple, Disney, Pepsi, and Facebook aren’t hiring because they see an Ivy League school on your resume. What they want to see is the quality of your work, and your proven ability to make creative teams do incredible things.

So, want to get their attention? Focus on the following.

1. Working With a Team

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

— Phil Jackson

An Art Director never works alone.

Say it again for the folks in the back: an Art Director Never Works Alone.

Sure, the commercial may be your vision. Maybe it’s a treasured brainchild—an idea cooked up one night at 2am when you woke up from a wonderful dream. You’re in charge of the execution…but to do it well, you’ll need the input of many, many, many others.

And the people you’ll work with will be creative geniuses in their own right—with all the ideas, and excitement, and ego that comes along with that.

It’ll be your job to manage those ideas and bring it all together. Think of being a chef: it may be your recipe, but even Anthony Bourdain wasn’t peeling each carrot and dicing each onion himself. It takes a village to make an idea work.

How do you build this skill?

Listening is an important factor. Really listening, and taking in the input of the people around you.

Another piece is delegating—knowing just how much you can get done yourself, and how to trust others to execute on your vision (adding their own personal touch along the way).

More than anything, it’s about practice.

2. An Eye for Detail

“Details matter. It’s worth waiting to get it right.”

— Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs was guiding the fledgling computer company we now know as Apple, he insisted that engineers make the insides of their computers beautiful. The motherboards―something the user would never, ever see.

Why? It makes seemingly no sense.

Engineers called him stupid. They harangued him for wasting their time.

But the idea was simple: true craft is all-encompassing. And by focusing on the details, you ensure you get the whole package right.

Today, Apple is Apple. And the same lesson is there for anyone to learn.

Art Direction, like creating a great product, is a craft. It’s a labor of love.

One a big, exciting project there can be a million little pieces to fit together. You might be consulting with your copywriter one second and adjusting the brightness on a single camera the next.

It might seem overwhelming at first…but the very best Art Directors have a unique advantage: they love the craft.

As you grow, you may begin to notice the change: striving for excellence—and surprise—in small details that take the execution to unexpected places. Details like music, lighting, casting, and props. Making sure everything has high production value to it, even if it’s on a tight budget.

3. Pitching Your Idea (And Yourself)

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

— John Maynard Keynes

An Art Director may have an incredible vision in their head. They could be set to bring about an incredible creative leap.

it won’t mean anything if they’re unable to get other people on board.

Any great creative knows that truly innovative ideas are often somewhat intimidating…if not downright scary. Challenging the status quo means combatting the strong power of inertia and entrenched “wisdom”.

Thus, as in many walks of life, communication is at the heart of Art Direction.

Part of the skill is understanding that people (to paint with a broad brush) tend to focus on other people. We’re a social species. And when evaluating a new idea, we can scarcely help but critique the person delivering it. Their presentation of themselves can be as important as their idea.

Is this a perfect state of affairs? Perhaps not. But it’s a reality. Art Directors who embrace that truth (and use it to their advantage) may find themselves pushing the creative envelope much more than those who choose not to.

4. Coping With Criticism

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

― Elbert Hubbard

Criticism comes part and parcel with creative life. Anything new is subject to backlash.

The true skill is in balancing your reaction.

Like any passionate creative, your work will become a part of you. Anyone who asks that you separate your ego entirely is being unreasonable. Better to ask a mother not to care for her baby.

That being said, your reaction to criticism will define your ability to improve.

Working days and nights to finish a new commercial means you simply can’t see the final product objectively. You’re too close. It’s essential that you respect and acknowledge the opinions of those around you. Cultivate those trusting relationships―they’ll tell you when you’re going off track.

But what about the other kind of feedback: creative input from non-creatives, whose insights you perhaps don’t agree with. Again, a gentle touch is a blessing. There will be clients whose criticism seems inane, insane, or inconsequential…your job as an Art Director is to change what needs changing, push back where needed, and (above all else) continue building the relationship.

5. Working With A Budget (Not Against It)

“Money is a terrible master but an excellent servant.”

― PT Barnum

Ahhhhhh, the money stuff.

Every creative’s favorite part of the process, right?

Like it or not, working with the big names (I’m talking about Disney, Coke, or Toyota) means working on a budget. You can either get good at it, or you can suffer through it for the rest of your creative life.

That sounds harsh, but it’s really an opportunity: master this aspect of the process and you’ll have a serious leg up on many other aspiring art directors.

The best thing you can learn to do is to see budgetary constraints as a pressure cooker for fantastic creative output.

As Orson Welles once put it: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.”

Use a budget to challenge your ideas. Think about the locations you want to shoot at―would it be funnier and more entertaining if you used an intentionally low-fi set?

6. Understanding Media (And Pop Culture)

“The medium is the message”

— Marshall McLuhan

A visionary Art Director is a pop culture engineer.

Like any other engineer, you’ll excel in your work when you understand the fundamental laws of the world you work in.

In this case, it’s

7. Killing Your Darlings

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

— Stephen King

This is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn.

You will have beautiful ideas. You will have moments of creative insight that feel as though you’ve cracked the base-code of the universe itself. Blissful epiphanies that bring perfect clarity…and you just know exactly what will bring your most recent project to absolute perfection.

And the client will hate it.

Or worse, they’ll simply say, “Yea…that’s OK. But what about…”

And you’ll be crushed. You’ll feel as though your very artistic soul has been critiqued, weighed, and judged unworthy.

Move past it.

Ideas will die and you’ll have to let them go. But, you can always put them in your pocket for a rainy day. Sometimes new ideas beat old ideas, so don’t be too precious.

The talent is in knowing that all ideas have a gestation period…and it’s OK to let them rest. And sometimes a great idea simply isn’t right for the place and time. Move on―the idea will always be there.

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